It's a warm winter five years after the end of the war. Hermione wear one of her lighter coats each day to the Muggle farmer's market where she passes ten pounds notes to gloveless hands and retrieves meats, cheeses, and the occasional yam. About a month out from Christmas, she is trying to revel in the quiet before the requisite Christmas parties: the one at the Ministry, the one at the Weasleys, the one at her parents' flat. The last remains the strangest, oddly and perhaps unfortunately; her parents cook and clean with their hands and not wands, and then ask a lot of questions about magic and wizarding history. It's often things she thinks she's already told them but that they've either forgotten or continue to ask just to fill space, and Arthur is more than happy to share details in exchange for their knowledge of bank holidays or the newly ubiquitous Internet.
Hermione tucks a loaf of brioche into her bag, tearing off a bit to chew as she wanders through the rest of the market. She's looking for a cheese vender when someone lays a hand on her shoulder. Hermione can be proud of this fact: she doesn't flinch. Took two years to train it out of her, but she doesn't jump at the tiny surprises anymore. The occasional backed up muffler, a sharp scream from down the street: yes. But a presence behind her, a hand on her back—she doesn't even twitch toward the wand in her pocket.
Besides, she realizes as she turns at a normal human pace, it's only Harry. She doesn't know how he found her but they've both made habits of showing up unannounced over the years. He probably just called Ron, who is slowly but surely getting used to the concept of a cell phone. She's teaching him how to text.
"I thought you'd be here," Harry says, which doesn't bespeak the Ron phone call theory, and she frowns and he seems to laugh at her. "Thursdays? Borough Market without the crowds? You're predictable."
Only to you, she doesn't say, and instead rolls her eyes a bit and passes him the ever-shrinking brioche roll. Harry tears off a small chunk for himself and falls into step beside her as Hermione finally lays eyes on the cheeses.
"So, what brings you out stalking me this afternoon?" she asks, brushing past two American girls trying half a dozen samples of Turkish Delight.
He shrugs, his telling hands in his pockets. "Just wanted to say hi. Slow day at the office and all that."
Hermione stops short; a trolley crashes into her left hip. The offending mother shoots her a scowl and Hermione just barely registers it. Harry looks her in the eye and feigns confusion, which would make her laugh but for the worry that's now creeping up through her fingers to the palms of her hands. He is so bad at deceiving her.
"What?" he says, and Hermione pushes his shoulder hard enough to make him trip back half an inch. "Aggressive," he says, laughing at her. The laugh makes her feel a little better. It can't be that dire.
"'Slow day at the office,'" she mimics. "'Just wanted to say hi.' You saw me yesterday, at which point you told me you were about to make a giant break in that ridiculous robbery case with the ostriches, so don't even bother."
Harry smiles a little, then rubs his hand along his jaw as though trying to erase it. "I really hate that memory of yours."
Now it's her turn to grin at him. "Really? You never mentioned that during all the times I was saving your life."
The smile twitches and then fades. Hermione shoves her hands into the pockets of her jeans. Some days are okay to joke about the war—coping mechanisms, all very healthy, she read about it and even encouraged it—but today isn't one of them. She should have known that. It's obvious from just a look at him.
"Sorry," she says, shaking her head.
"Don't worry about it," Harry says, beginning to walk them away from the middle of the path where they've been standing. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about anyway."
Hermione frowns even more now. Harry doesn't talk about the war. It wasn't always that way, and after the war it was all he would speak of, his head on her knees in the yard at the Borough, tearing grass leaves to shreds. He would recall the battles and the colors and the scents of Hogwarts burning, do you remember that, Hermione? Of course she did, and she would nod and hum an ascent and brush his hair off his face like the small gesture could do something, like she could touch that scar of his and send some healing power she didn't even possess into his skin and fix—anything. A preposterous notion, of course. But Hermione protects Harry. That's what she does. Harry saves the Wizarding World and Hermione saves Harry and the world turns on its axis, unaware.
Harry doesn't talk about the war much anymore. He will on anniversaries of deaths (which are many) or victories (which are few). She's already thought through the calendar, though, and today is nothing special. She doesn't ask him to explain, though. She just waits for him to speak.
"I want to go to the woods," is what he says when he does, head tilted just a bit to the side to study her response. The question doesn't need to be posed because it's buried in the sentence: will you go with me? Hermione doesn't ask which woods. She knows where Harry wants to go, just as she knows he wouldn't ask her to go with him if it weren't important. Her hand slips around his wrist, tugging him to the nearest alley where they won't be seen, and closes her eyes.
"You want to tell me why we're here?" Hermione asks. They've been there for around half an hour. It's colder out here in the north than it was in the city, so she sits by the fire she created and regrets her coat choices. The woods are amazing—if she weren't so unnerved to be there she would revel in the grey-white beauty of the place, or the silence broken only by the occasional crack of twigs beneath Harry's pacing feet. Unfortunately, though, she is unnerved, and the crackle of the fire does nothing to calm her.
After the war, Hermione couldn't get out of the woods. She would curl up on the Weasley's armchairs or traipse around Australia looking for her parents and in her head she would still be in the woods. She's never been back here. Harry has been, and she always knew when he'd gone because he would show up at her flat at two in the morning looking absolutely spent, shoulders curved toward the earth. Two years after the war, nearly to the day, she made him promise not to come back here. She remembers crying a lot about it too, because Harry had won the war and she didn't want the war to win him back. So, she sat at her kitchen table and he let her hold his hands in such a complicated interwoven manner that she didn't know where they separated and he promised her that he wouldn't come back. And he never came back. Until now.
Harry stops pacing. He looks startled for a moment, like he didn't expect her to speak. Then he shakes his head and sits down on the ground beside her, his knee hitting hers a few times as he settles.
"I went to Grimmauld Place today," he says, and Hermione has to resist rolling her eyes. She hates that place, and so does Harry, and he keeps it for no reason other than to scare future children, who will surely be threatened with the possibility of being locked up in that place with all its irritable portraits.
"And what led you to visit such a splendid building?" she asks.
He smirks. "Poorly placed nostalgia." An old and terrible habit of Harry's. She waits for him to continue as he reaches into the pockets of his appropriately-warm coat and pulls out a small bundle of letters. He doesn't hand them to her and she doesn't reach toward them. He just fiddles with the already fraying edges. The parchment is poor and old.
"They're letters from my father," Harry says. Hermione sits up straighter; she thought they'd found every last remnant of the Potters Sirius ever stored away. Apparently not. "They're from summers between school years. He starts talk about my mom in the ones I'm up to, about how he—he loves her."
Hermione nods. James and Lily have always been ascribed a sort of epic romance, but that's different than reading about it firsthand. In all of Lily's notes to Sirius, which they found long ago, she doesn't talk about any of that. But, of course, she wouldn't. She eyes the letters again. The thing about love stories, the real ones, is that they can leave the reader with a sense of displacement: is that what I have, do I feel that, am I connected that way, is that the only way? She doesn't want to read them.
"That must be hard for you," is what she says instead, just to prod him on.
He shrugs. "I don't know. I just wanted to come back here."
Hermione frowns. If she found her parents' professions of love in the attic, her first instinct wouldn't be to return to a forest where she could have died.
Harry looks over at her and seems to laugh a little. She must have missed the joke. "You know," he says, "after the war, when I was here, it wasn't just because I couldn't get past the war. That was part of it, sure, but—it's so quiet here."
Hermione looks around the woods again. There's a deer running in the distance, so far off it skips out of sight half a minute later. A squirrel rests on a tree nearby, watching them, wondering what they will do. She breathes, and smells nothing but the fire. It would be peaceful now if it hadn't been so miserable back then.
"So," she tries, "you came here to take a break?"
He shrugs. "Something like that. Do you remember how loud it was after the war? All those cameras flashing and reporters buzzing around and all we wanted to do was sleep."
Hermione nods. She seems to recall sleeping for two days straight before she managed to pluck herself up and find her parents. Then, upon return, another straight day of rest. Well, not rest. Something that passed for rest, waking up tangled in sheets and sweat down her neck.
"I used to come here to breathe," he says. "And then I came here because I came here. And then I came here because I didn't know who I was without the war, but you saved me then too. So, I wanted to come back here today because I wanted to breathe but I, I don't know, I guess I didn't want to go alone anymore."
She peers over at him. His hair has toppled onto his face again, and for a moment, in the right light reflecting off the fire, he looks 17 again. Looks like the boy who used to hold her hand and run.
"I still don't understand why you'd come back here if you were looking for quiet," she murmurs after a moment. "I'd run far from here. You can apparate to Montenegro. The beaches are wonderful."
Harry laughs then, long and loud with his head tilted back. He looks over to her and wraps his hand around her knee for a moment, then pulls away. "You're probably right. I should have gone to Maui. Can't you see me on a surfboard?"
She smirks. "Definitely. Skinny and pale as you are, I'm sure you would have wowed the ladies too."
He nods, faking solemnity. "I'm all about the ladies," he deadpans, and then it's her turn to cackle, a sharp, bright sound.
When she's done laughing, Harry sort of chuckling beside her, she has to ask, "All the same, this is hardly where I'd come for some thoughtful peace and quiet. We hated being here. Don't you come back and feel—unsafe?"
"Nah," he says, grinning and looking out across the woods. "You were here."